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Monday, August 10, 2015

The Kinks

While it took me quite some time to come to this conclusion, it was worth the wait. What is this conclusion, you ask? That Ray Davies, in his prime, was one of the most identifiable songwriters in rock/pop music. I won't be the first to note – and certainly the ever-blunt Mark Prindle put it best – that as a melodist, Ray was one of the Lennon/McCartney duo's greatest competitors amongst their peers, British or otherwise, and on occasion he could even surpass them. In how these melodies could complement his vision arguably make them even better. His work is frequently focused on nostalgia from the point of view of the lonely little guy – and to me that earns him the title of the quintessentially English "working class hero", nearly a decade before New Jersey had their own such hero in Bruce Springsteen – and his melodies, at his peak, always contained a perfect mixture of hopefulness, peacefulness and melancholy to capture the mood. That it took the Kinks' onstage fights and their consequent banning from playing in the United States for Ray to fully embrace his heritage is unfortunate as far as recognition for them goes but in retrospect it seems worthwhile.

Besides, it would be pretty hard to break big in the States with such fervor for British life even as the US people readily embraced British bands: ban or not, the group's best-known songs (as far as radio airplay is concerned) are those that could be (briefly) confused for American rock songs. The two best-known – "You Really Got Me", before the ban in 1964; and "Lola", after the ban in 1970 – certainly fit the bill, the former being heavily imitated by (and in slight imitation of) Midwest American garage rock bands and the latter being driven roots rock à la Rolling Stones at their most "American sounding". While they both have spades of Ray Davies' magic, and are definitely innovative songs, their resemblance to their peers' works and distance from their classic sound is still enough to give off the wrong, albeit still good, impression of the band on the average listener.

Not to be overly pretentious about it, but the general intent of this article and the subsequent reviews is to help contribute in building up the reputation of the "real" Kinks (and I more or less follow the curve of their existing critical standings and agree with a few fan favorites, with some notable exceptions, of course). The transition from a rather ordinary-sounding R&B band (and amongst the well-known British Invasion bands, they only surpass the Zombies when it comes to cover tunes) with contrastingly fantastic singles to one of the first majorly poetic bands is astounding. For me, the absolute peak of the band is from 1966-1972, and while some might exclude that last year, it's hard to disagree that Ray, and Dave with his best contributions, were really doing something they loved: four or five cleverly-made concept albums (one of which coming pretty close to being a rock opera), some of the best character portraits in pop/rock – with which only Bob Dylan could compete, albeit differently– and stylistic diversity worthy of the three other British rock greats. While the peak of this era might fall anywhere in the middle, it was generally consistent enough to seem like nothing could go wrong. And yet, something did go wrong.

It's partly bad luck that Ray made a blunder setting back their career considerably: having an ambitious project while dealing with personal problems (in his case a failing marriage, mental health issues and alcoholism) hardly guarantees an artistic failure, given that Pete Townshend made what are often considered the Who's three best albums in such conditions, or that Bob Dylan made Blood on the Tracks with the "help" of his own failed marriage. Yet record company pressures wouldn't allow Ray to complete his artistic visions, so instead of an ambitious sequel to his earlier masterpiece Village Green Preservation Society, he had to settle for a rushed, single LP "prelude" to the project. It goes without saying that it became hard to recover after that, with the finally complete sequel being far from the masterpiece it was conceived as, and the next two rock operas were too lightweight and derivative (yet ultimately enjoyable) to even dream of competing.

In a strange twist of fate, the widespread death of artsier rock for which rock operas were made helped initiate the group's Silver Age. Indeed, the punk rock and hard rock/heavy metal the Kinks predicted nearly a decade and a half earlier were now influencing them. This "get-back-to-basics" attitude, with Ray (and once in a blue moon, Dave) penning pissed-off rockers and unpretentious guitar or piano-based ballads, certainly wasn't enough to renew the melodic wonders of yore, but they saved their reputation and even earned them some minor hits (though like their classic-era hits were hardly that indicative). As you can tell, I don't think too highly of this period. Yet those hints of Ray's genius (and Dave's hard work and crafty skill) genuinely made it all worthwhile.

Surprisingly, they managed to only sink as low as average in the 1980's, when most of their fellow1960's/1970's survivors could hardly give a damn, although this came with the heavy fine of a sometimes boring formula. Regardless, at a time when most bands of their ilk were all set for their Bronze Ages at the end of the decade and early the next one, that's when the Kinks completely blew it: Ray and Dave couldn't stand each other (at least they feigned tolerance in the past), and the tepid heavy metal they offered in recompense was hardly enough.

For two decades as of this writing, this generic album has been our farewell to the Kinks (excluding a fine live/live-in-studio package). For some, this sort of disappointment is sufficient in diminishing the strength of their peak (something that happens with the similarly despotic Ian Anderson's Jethro Tull), yet that's not the case for me, nor should it be for anyone. No one's forcing you to listen to Phobia. I'm not implying it's the reason other critics with a band rating system limit the Kinks to a 4, but I suppose it makes them more unforgiving of their best LPs' few minor flaws. A shame, really: is there an album with less filler than Arthur? Aside from those other 5-star artists' works, hardly.

Read more Kinks reviews here.

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